Part 2 in a series.
by Dr. Michael Tracey
How stupid are Americans, anyway? And how much worse are our leaders?
Numerous events and curious beliefs – large and small – caught the eye, even before the election of 2008 and certainly beyond. Consider:
- a CNN discussion on October 10, 2005, featuring the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, addressed the subject of whether recent climate events – the Christmas 2004 tsunami in Asia, hurricane Katrina in the late summer of 2005, an earthquake in Asia – actually presaged the end times, the Rapture and the second coming of Christ;
- the fact that in 2007, six years after the 9/11 attacks, a New York Times/CBS poll found that 33% of Americans, including 40% of Republicans and 27% of Democrats, said that Saddam Hussein was personally involved, though even the Bush/Cheney administration had declared that he wasn’t;
- the bizarre behaviors and kind of clerico-fascism of Christian conservatives chronicled by authors such as Matt Taibbi (1), and Chris Hedges (2);
- spikes in sales of guns and ammo after Obama’s election victory in 2008 and then again in 2012;
- public opinion on torture;
- a rise in the popularity of Fox News after the election;
- talk of states seceding from the Union;
- the 50% of Republicans surveyed in August 2010 who thought that it was “definitely true” or “probably true” that Obama “sympathizes with the goal of fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world”(3);
- the emergence of the “birthers,” the not inconsiderable numbers of people who refuse to believe that the President is legitimate because he was not born on US soil – a view shared by a majority of Republicans; at the time of writing the figure is about 60%;
- the “tenthers,” advocates of asserting the 10th amendment to the Constitution as a means of opposing policies emerging from Washington;
- the deepening role in the Republican Party of Rush Limbaugh, the emergence of the splenetic Glenn Beck and most tellingly of all the rise of Donald Trump;
- the startling revelation – in an age when it seemed almost impossible to be startled anymore – that 11% of Republicans in North Carolina didn’t know that Hawaii was a state and that 21% of voters in New Jersey either believed that Obama was the “anti-Christ” or “weren’t sure”;
- a poll commissioned by the liberal blog DailyKos but undertaken by the independent polling company Research 2000, published in early 2010, which found, among other things, that among self-identified Republicans 39% felt that Obama should be impeached, 63% thought he was a socialist, 23% thought their state should secede from the United States and 31% believed that Obama was a racist who hated white people;
- the 30% of Texans who in a poll undertaken by the University of Texas’ David Pringle on Texans and religious belief who believed that humans and dinosaurs lived on the Earth at the same time (a figure which, if nothing else, offers support to the comedian Lewis Black’s suggestion that a significant number of Americans think the Flintstones is a documentary);
- the 30% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 who, according to a National Geographic Society survey, couldn’t find the Pacific on a map, though 34% could name the location of the island in the previous seasons Survivor, which happened to be in the Pacific;
- the 60% of adults who could name Homer’s son in The Simpsons, compared to the 14% who could name Homer’s Illiad;
- the 59% who knew that Superman was from the planet Krypton and the 66% who didn’t know that Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun;
- the 59% who could not name the three branches of government and the 63% who could not name two Supreme Court justices;
- and the plurality of Americans in a Pew poll who did not or could not identify Fox News as conservative, including 14% who declared it to be “liberal,” a view which is very much in the category of space aliens walk among us.
What of the apparent obsession with celebrity, no better demonstrated than the top ten search terms published annually by the major search engines, and salacious crime (fictional and non-fiction crime shows are the biggest genre on American television after the weather)? There was even a poll from Public Policy Polling, published in August 2013, which found that 29% of Louisiana Republicans believed that President Obama was more to blame for the botched executive branch response to Hurricane Katrina. 28% blamed Bush, and 44% were unsure who was more responsible. Obama, at the time of Katrina was, history will recall, a freshman senator. The only sane response to this bizarre poll, and making an assumption as to what might lie behind it, is to adapt Coleridge’s “Christabel”:
“And constancy lives in realms above
And life is thorny; and youth is vain;
And to be wroth with one we (hate)
Doth work like madness in the brain.”
(The substituted word in the original is “love.”)
Then there is the widespread poverty in literacy, and the decline of meaningful reading (Tracey, 2015.) One could go on, the list of the weird, the incorrect, the ignorant, the bizarre, the shallow, the troubling is endless.
The there is the rise of what we might call anti-science, reflected in the thinking of upper levels of the political class, who one suspects nevertheless, as they fly home to their constituents, fervently hope that the science of flight works. For example, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, in promoting his book “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future,” told Voice of Christian Youth America in March 2012 that God controls the climate, not humans. He added: “Well actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.’ My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” In similar vein, in 2009, John Shimkus, a Republican representative from Illinois and chairman of the subcommittee that oversees issues related to climate change said that climate change wasn’t happening because in Genesis God made it clear that he wouldn’t destroy the earth because he’s already done it once with the Flood, but added that “the Earth will only end when God declares it to be over.”
There is another interesting index of how things are. In May 2012 the Sunlight Foundation published a rather fascinating, if tellingly troubling, study based on the CapitolWords.org website which features the most popular words and phrases in the Congressional Record since 1996. The study claims that Congress speaks at about a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005 (these are average figures: the top speaker at a grade level of 16.1 was Dan Lungren of California, the bottom was Tim Griffin of Arkansas at a grade level of 8.13). The report, written by Senior Fellow Lee Drutman, working with software developer Dan Drinkard, and employing the Flesch-Kincaid test, which equates higher-grade levels with longer words and sentences, also notes that by comparison the US Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level, the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 grade level and the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level. There is something rather apposite about these data given the general coarsening of political and public discourse. But let’s be honest and admit that we don’t need to rely on this research, and admit that no one in their right mind looks at the Congress and thinks “there before me is an Assemblage of Men of Letters.”
The feeling one is left with when one thinks of this country as the National Security State and the National Entertainment State is that there is something profoundly lacking, that in this country’s political demeanour and cultural appetites it has failed to live up to its own declaration of purpose, and is in considerable part a failed democracy, a coarsened, flattened out culture that feels “immature.”
Dr. Michael Tracey is a Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Colorado, although of late his research has increasingly engaged with literature and neuroscience. He believes society – and American society in particular – needs a paradigm shift that recognizes that children are neurological as well as social beings, and that neuroscience is coming to have as important a role to play in explaining children and childhood as any other body of thought. Dr. Tracey previously contributed an extended series on as-yet-unsolved the Ramsey case to S&R.
- Matt Taibbi, “The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American empire.” 2008, Spiegel and Grau
- Chris Hedges, “American Fascists: the Christian Right and the War on America.” 2006, Simon and Schuster.
- CNN Poll, Politico, August 14, 2010.